The Invisible Crowd by Ellen Wiles

The Invisible CrowdLRWhatever you’re doing right now, stop. You need to find a copy of this amazing book. The Invisible Crowd is an outstanding debut novel from human-rights-barrister-turned-author, Ellen Wiles.

Main character, Yonas Kelati, is a refugee from Eritrea on the Horn of Africa. Imprisoned and tortured after criticising the government in his home country, he undertakes a life-threatening journey to the UK, where he’s forced into modern-day slavery. Eventually escaping, Yonas heads to London where he tries to navigate the complexities of the UK’s immigration system.

Like many of the novel’s characters, I knew next to nothing about Eritrea until I heard Yonas’ story. The first chapter – narrated by the lawyer fighting for Yonas’ right to remain in the UK – clues the reader into some of the horrors that came with its 30-year war for independence, ongoing conflict and government censorship. Throughout The Invisible Crowd, Yonas’ treasured short phonecalls to his sister reveal the intimidation faced by his few surviving Eritrean family members.

There is no omniscient narrator in this novel, each section is told from a different person’s perspective. Jules, the overworked barrister, is the reader’s starting point, but we soon move between Yonas’ story told with his own voice, and the views of the different people he meets. By rights this approach should be confusing, but the author manages it beautifully and builds up a strong picture of Yonas’ struggles.

Views on asylum seekers

Each new chapter is marked by the name of the narrator and a real headline from a UK newspaper. We watch as Yonas – nicknamed ‘professor’ by a friend due to his love of reading – tries to understand his new home’s view of asylum seekers by collecting these almost entirely negative tabloid articles.

This seems to be the heart of the novel. Ellen Wiles uses her characters to explore the way the UK treats people who have entered the country illegally to escape persecution. Some of her characters are sympathetic, others are indifferent, callous or, occasionally, actively hostile. Overall, she builds up a picture of the confusing world Yonas is forced into as he chases the holy grail of ILR (indefinite leave to remain).

Verdict: If you only read one book in 2018 make it The Invisible Crowd. Yes, some of the characters (such as asylum seeker centre worker Martina) seem to have been dropped into the narrative to make a point about UK attitudes but they don’t detract from what is a beautiful, heart-rending novel with an important message.  

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